Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008


Clearview Chelsea Cinemas (260 W. 23rd St.)
Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston St.)

Courtesy Warner Independent Pictures

It’s all “Funny Games,” but Naomi Watts isn’t laughing

Fruits of a film festival

From Sundance, “Funny Games” and “Smart People” come to New York

By Steven Snyder

In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival – held every January in Park City, Utah – has effectively splintered into two separate and wildly different events. On one hand, the festival remains committed to its original mission of discovering, celebrating and advocating independent filmmakers. On the other, however, it has eroded ever so slightly into an annual celebrity circus, a place where A-listers go when they want to make a detour towards smaller-budget works, all in hopes of winning awards.

This spring, the first two prominent titles from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival premiered on New York screens – each hailing from opposite ends of the modern Sundance spectrum.

Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” is more of a classic Park City production, an indie film that is at once inspiring and infuriating, sure to polarize New York audiences. Essentially a shot-by-shot remake of Haneke’s earlier “Funny Games,” made in 1997 and filmed in German, the American version of “Funny Games” is no less insipid or incendiary than that 10-year-old masterpiece – a small-budget horror film few have seen.

The 2008 “Funny Games” stars Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as a well-to-do Long Island couple leaving the city for the sanctuary of their weekend country home – a million-dollar estate complete with the white picket fence. Their relaxing weekend, however, goes terrifyingly wrong with the arrival of Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two prim-and-proper boys who say they’re staying next door with the neighbors. As the two uninvited guests slowly turn from polite to rude, Watts asks the young men to leave. And that’s when things turn violent, Paul and Peter holding the family hostage throughout the evening, responding to their tears with chuckles and mockery, abusing them verbally before attacking them physically.

But like so many of Haneke’s films, particularly the voyeuristic “Cache” that caught the imagination of New York audiences in early 2006, the director is far less interested in plot and cheap thrills than in commenting on the way we watch movies. In the case of “Funny Games,” he is picking apart the way we simultaneously scorn, but are thrilled by, violence. In the movie’s final moments, Haneke even subverts our desire for resolution, denying us a climax even as he seems to insist “it’s just a movie.”

If “Funny Games” belongs to the school of Sundance films which push back against the simple, superficial pleasures of so many mindless Hollywood escapes, then “Smart People” (now playing) hails from the other, more superficial side of the festival – a movie with a cast of stars who have agreed to lower fees in exchange for edgier material.

It’s hard not to compare “Smart People” in some ways to “The Squid and the Whale,” which launched the career of filmmaker Noah Baumbach at Sundance in 2005. Helmed by newcomer Noam Murro, “Smart People” seems fascinated by much the same issue: The malaise of the academic elite, chiefly that of Dennis Quaid, as Lawrence Wetherhold, a frustrated, arrogant and disconnect Pittsburgh professor. Sick of his place in life, Lawrence’s sense of discontent seems embedded in his very genes, as we come to learn more about his daughter Vanessa (“Juno” ’s Ellen Page), who similarly feels empty, lacks friends and seems to reap little happiness from life.

If “Funny Games” is akin to a slap across the face of the average moviegoer, then “Smart People” is instead a gentle nudge, poking fun at two characters who seem ripe for mockery. The majority of the story in “Smart People” is witnessing these know-it-alls dislodged from their place of superiority, as Lawrence falls in love with a doctor who was once a student of his with a serious crush (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), and as Vanessa comes to bond with her dad’s misfit brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who is anything but an elitist.

Buoyed by a sharp, witty script and an ensemble of performances that is everything one would expect from actors like Quaid, Page, Parker and Church, “Smart People” executes its quirky zingers with perfection, and fits comfortably into the Sundance “dysfunctional family” niche, carved out by the likes of “Little Miss Sunshine.” As such, it may not be anything new, but “Smart People” is definitely a whole lot of fun.

Taken together, “Funny Games” and “Smart People” couldn’t be more different, one looking to fit in and the other wanting so badly to stick out. But that’s the kind of identity crisis that has befallen the Sundance Film Festival in recent years, the mixed bag of trifles and treasures that continue to debut in Park City every year, before flooding New York City’s art houses in the weeks and months to come.




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